Grades of Corruption – Three rhetorical questions.
As you will see for yourself above I have written around half a dozen posts on Corruption here in Brazil, so I thought I may be allowed to offer an Opinion Piece. Let us say I wish to take a moment for reflection and I would like to reflect on a Global scale since corruption is endemic around the world, denied by politicians, leaders of diametrically opposed world views of Capitalism and Communism. It is denied by business people and bankers who are or have been paid bonuses that make your eyes water. It is denied by sports stars and their coteries and it is denied by leaders of sports organisations from football to athletics, from tennis to cycling – and none of us mere mortals believe a word they say about it.
Let me start such reflection by asking three rhetorical questions. Ask yourselves these questions, too, and let me know what YOU think. These are my questions…
1 Is there a scale of corruption which at some point goes beyond “the acceptable”, or is it never acceptable?
2 Can we tackle corruption with legislation?
3 Are we living in some “Golden Age for Corruption”, or has it always been like this and will it always be like this?
QUESTION 1: – Is there a scale of corruption which at some point goes beyond “the acceptable”, or is it never acceptable?
Having lived through the last few weeks of Brazilian Corruption and then being faced with stories of David Cameron`s apparently modest case of hypocrisy my first inclination is to say that there is definitely a SCALE of corruption. After all, Cameron apparently sold all his shares before he took office as Prime Minister so he could look you in the eye and say he does not have another agenda so he can be honest and tackle corruption and tax evasion on your behalf. The fact that he was apparently lying by omission, in not telling the whole truth about the past and the fact that he had written to the EU on behalf of Family Trusts seems nowhere near as bad as any number of Brazilian politicians who have accepted, sometimes, millions of dollars to favour one business rather than another.
In Friday`s Guardian, Simon Jenkins points out he simply made a mistake of ineptitude. `At this point the political hullabaloo resorts to poor handling. Cameron was a rich guy. He did not “tell it all, tell it fast and tell it yourself”. He seemed dodgy and on the defensive`. It may eventually be revealed to be worse than this, but probably does not warrant Cameron being sent to prison, as Ken Livingstone suggests should be the response.
But my rhetorical question is about “the acceptable”, and I would argue that it is never acceptable but that we should be proportionate in our response to scale. It is not acceptable that a Lance Armstrong or a Maria Sharapova should deprive honest competitors of their chance for medals or sporting fame and fortune and deprive spectators of the spectacle of honest endeavours to win, so cheating sports personalities should be exposed and banned and ridiculed.
Cameron should be forced to resign and the worst of the venal Brazilian politicians should be sent to prison, but do we think we may be getting closer to a situation where such things might really happen? Call me cynical but I do not think we are anywhere near that position yet – but we should keep pushing, there seems to be some momentum against corruption, there may be a tipping point near to hand?
Talking of tipping points prompts another question. Where should we stand vis-à-vis the Climate Change argument between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Because this also seems to be an issue of corruption, maybe not one of personal financial benefit (although I wouldn`t rule that out given the income levels of the Clinton family) but Sanders is claiming the whole political system, the “Establishment” in American politics, is fundamentally corrupt. The peddling of influence, using huge finances, to drive political agendas which are not in the long term interests of us, the inhabitants of this fragile Earth.
In scientific terms, it is widely accepted that something like 70-80% of the worlds fossil fuel reserves should be left in the ground but Clinton`s position is that “Fracking” can somehow be made safe and yet, if fracking is even considered, much more fossil fuel will be extracted than can be considered safe. Thus Climate Change may well be sent far beyond its tipping point. Is that corruption (Sanders says “yes”) and if so is it “acceptable” in the name of free speech? My response is “No, it is not acceptable”, but, then, I am not voting in the USA Democratic primaries.
QUESTION 2: – Can we tackle corruption with legislation?
Sadly the answer to this rhetorical question is an ambiguous YES and NO! In my lifetime there have been any number of corruption scandals, the Rachman rent scandal in the 1960s and the Poulson scandal in the 1970s spring to mind. These have led to specific legislation in order to “never let it happen again”. And, of course, it never does happen again – in quite the same way!
Unfortunately it does seem to be part of the human condition that we humans are subject to a degree of venality, and seemingly always have been, so if the legislation is ambiguous or has serious loopholes, there will always be people ready to drive wagons and horses through a loophole which happens to be big enough to accommodate such a method of transport.
Thus we have the situation where David Cameron can claim that his family`s offshore holdings, set up by his father, was not “illegal” and was set up to offer a facility “… after exchange controls went so that people who wanted to invest in dollar denominated shares and companies could do so.” That it also seemed to benefit from not having to pay UK taxes was, of course, incidental. And most of us with money invested in pension funds may also be benefitting similarly, even if unwittingly. But we should be able to rely on appropriate legislation to keep us all morally sound, shouldn`t we?
Also, as I have pointed out in earlier posts about the corruption in Brazil, the Constitution here was established in 1889 to allow a special Court to catch criminality and corruption amongst the “ruling classes”. This process has been pursued in the 1989 version of the Constitution of Brazil, setting up a privileged Forum to cater for errant politicians. The problem in Brazil is that successive generations of politicians here have abused the system and have clearly been able to put off conclusive punishments for obvious crimes of corruption and worse.
The Panama leaks have brought to light the fact that Russian Oligarchs, Chinese Politburo members, Icelandic Prime Ministers and rich businessmen and sports personalities have sought to salt their riches away in secret, whether ill-gotten or not. On the plus side the timing of the leaks seems to have brought with it the possibility that there may be a window of opportunity for international, or global, community movements, like Avaaz for example, to apply pressure to get global action that would end up benefitting ALL of us poor schmucks who lose out every time the richest in the world avoid paying their share of the world`s costs.
QUESTION 3 – Are we living in some “Golden Age for Corruption”, or has it always been like this and will it always be like this?
I am guessing, I suppose, but it would seem that corruption has been with us for some considerable time, since the Greek philosophers needed to address the nature of Good and Evil. Apparently before he was converted to Christianity, Augustine had been a believer in the Manichean pagan cult which depicted the World as a battle ground between a perfectly good creator and the perfectly evil destroyer. The philosophers seem to have had a problem actually defining what corruption is but the general appreciation is that it involves the illegitimate pursuit of private interest, whilst acting contrary to the public good. But then we get into difficulty depending upon who is defining the “pubic good”, what may be the details of the “nature of the law” in a particular state at a particular time or the “institutional context” of the legislation.
Socrates rejected politics as being incompatible with the pursuit of knowledge and Aristotle, somewhat less condemning still believed in the superiority of an eternal unchanging realm accessible only to pure reason.
The Romans too had their own problems with corruption. Ramsay MacMullen, in his “Corruption and the decline of Rome”, took the view that that a sea-change occurred in the dominant ethic of government and civil life as the Roman Empire expanded and became over-extended.
“Bribery and abuses always occurred, of course. But by the fourth and fifth centuries they had become the norm: no longer abuses of a system, but an alternative system in itself. The cash nexus overrode all other ties. Everything was bought and sold: public office including army commands and bishoprics, judges’ verdicts, tax assessments, access to authority on every level, and particularly the emperor. The traditional web of obligations became a marketplace of power, ruled only by naked self-interest.”
Moving onto more recent times, John Dalberg-Acton, the first Baron Acton, is credited with the expression “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” with which I am sure you are familiar. But did you know the expression went a stage further? He added “Great men are almost always bad men.” Certainly if we think of Henry Vlll, or Machiavelli, or any number of Dictators who may have been thought of as Great Men of their times, this seems an apt adage. But was it true of Churchill?
I am not sure whether Baron Acton would have held that to be true of someone he surely admired as a great man, the Liberal Prime Minister several times during Acton`s lifetime, William Ewart Gladstone. Gladstone is widely regarded as a great politician, of course, but I am not sure he would be seen also as a “bad man”. However, in the remarks I referred to earlier – by Ken Livingstone about David Cameron – Livingstone also referred to links with the Slave trade in the family history of the Camerons in previous generations. It brought to mind the fact that WE Gladstone was able to follow a long political career at least in part because he was a man of independent means, from the fortune his father had amassed as one of the biggest slave owners in the West Indies.
Coming back to my third rhetorical question, about whether we are in a “Golden Age for Corruption”, my conclusion is that things are probably no worse than they have been at many points in our history but that modern communications and the power of the internet simply highlights the corruption in much greater detail.
Let me leave you with a REAL question, then, rather than a rhetorical one. Will the internet and our interconnectivity allow us to break the back of global corruption once and for all? Answers on a postcard please (or in electronic comments to my Blog!)